One of the highlights of the Breakout session at the 2023 Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) on the adverse impact of toxic content such as fake news, cyber-bullying and hate speech was a highly insightful presentation by the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Prof. Muhammed Tawfiq Ladan, PhD.

NEWSWIRE Law & Events Magazine reports that the learned professor began his presentation by acknowledging the power and positive impact of the internet and social media in particular as excellent mechanisms to enable and facilitate democratic engagement, knowledge for all and businesses to thrive.

But in the wrong hands, he lamented, or deliberately misused by unscrupulous persons or interests, it can also be an instrument for propagation of extremism and violence, political manipulations, spread of false information to discredit or cause physical or psychological harm to other individuals and groups. A lot of citizens and societies or national economies, today around the globe, are threatened by the effects of fake news, cyber bullying and hate speech. Social media platforms serve as fertile grounds for fake news and hate speech consumption and sharing, and perpetration of cyber bullying meant to discredit or harm specific people or groups. This, the professor, is made possible by the various algorithms within the social media networks that seem to enhance the fake news phenomenon on Social media by creating false accounts that spread misleading or erroneous information or propaganda.

Defining social media as a digital means of communication, interaction, participation, networking, creating and sharing information, ideas and opinions through virtual networks and communities, Prof. Ladan, who is also a Hubert Humphrey fellow, said it encompasses all the platforms and Apps that facilitate digital communication, creation and exchange of information, content, ideas, etc. He gave examples of these platforms to include Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, Tiktok, and YouTube, etc.

Describing the term ‘fake news’ is a misnomer – on the grounds that the word ‘news’ denotes verifiable and credible information purveyed in the public interest, the academic asserted that any information that does not meet the standards of verifiability, credibility and public interest does not deserve the label of news. He summed up the characteristics of fake news as false, fee and designed to exploit the vulnerability and partisan potential of recipients; capable of polarizing public opinion; manipulative, as having the potential effect of promoting violence, extremism, hate speech and cyber bullying; capable of undermining trust in the democratic processes and the judicial system; designed to cause injury or disaffection among and between individuals and groups.

Prof. Ladan also made the distinction beween disinformation and misinformation, before going on to address the practice of cyber -bullying. – which he identified as an anti-social online behavior that is violative of the rights to human dignity, free speech and freedom of association of targeted victims, which he said was meant to discredit or cause harm, physical, psychological, emotional or reputational to targeted individual or groups etc., in addition to being highly prevalent among youths and compulsive users of internet or social media. One aspect of cyber bullying, he disclosed, is stalking.

Prof. Ladan then proceeded to give an exposition on hate speech is any form of expression intended to vilify, humiliate, abuse, threaten or incite violence or hatred, enmity, ill-will against a person or group or class of persons based on their differences in gender, race, religion, ethnicity, disability or political opinion, etc. It is a criminal act in violation of Section 26 of the Cybercrimes Act 2015 when it directly incites hatred, enmity or imminent criminal activity, or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group, or threatens the physical and psychological well-being of those affected, fosters social disharmony, political polarization and erosion of existing anti-discriminatory norms and domestic counter-terrorism measures.

The learned academic proceeded to proffer ways to combat all these examples of toxic online behaviour. One of these remedies, he said, was to respect, promote and protect the rght of the public to have unhindered access to available and credible information, and participate in governance from an informed position that is verifiable and credible; by balancing free speech protections and harm to individuals and society with content and anonymity regulation. By aggressively promoting information and media literacy as part of youths and students curriculum in schools and as part of adult digital literacy in adult education. Educators, he said, must undergo continuing digital information and media education to enable them empower students with the critical competences to critically understand and assess information reported by all forms of media; by periodically evaluating the role and limits of legal, regulatory and policy initiatives in information content control on social media by both governments and social media platforms / companies; and by evaluating successes, challenges, new threats and development in information and communications technology (ICT).

The learned professor concluded his presentation by maintaining that there was no silver bullet solution against toxic online behaviour in sight, addressing the practice required a combination of human oversight, investment in, and capacity to deploy technologically designed tools to weed out falsehood, hatred or abuse, and tools to further empower users, whose protection from invisible security harm or criminally minded persons and content question is paramount.

According to NEWSWIRE’s correspondent, Prof. Muhammad Tawfiq Ladan called policymakers, educators and parents to pay more attention to approaches for digital citizenship education based on virtue and moral character, aimed at developing positive social skills and character for positive and harmonious interpersonal relationships.


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